Games of the Decade: League of Legends

By Alistair Jones on at

In nearly nine years of playing League of Legends, one moment sticks out more clearly than any other. A pre-planned team-wide combo pulled off with such pixel-perfection that it brought a 30-minute game to an end in a matter of seconds. I don’t remember how the rest of that game had played out or even which characters were on the other team but, years later, I can still see the instant that beautiful plan came together.

I played my first games of LoL in the summer of 2011. Eight-and-a-half years later, in the final weeks of 2019, I am still playing regularly. For me, no game better encapsulates the past ten years: in a decade full of personal change, League of Legends has been a reliable constant. Since my first steps onto the Rift, I finished school, left home and went to university. I graduated, and moved to a new city to start a new job, but throughout all that time and all those changes, I've never really stopped playing.

There have been periods of downtime, of course. Punishing or stagnant metas occasionally pushed my group of teammates to try something new, as did dalliances with other team games like Fortnite and CS:GO. But League of Legends is the thread that ties us all together, and every time we took a break, there was a tacit understanding that eventually, we would be back. So far, at least, that understanding has held true.

If you asked me to put my finger on exactly what keeps us playing, I would struggle to tell you. There’s an argument that suggests it’s a Stockholm Syndrome-esque relationship, or one driven by a groupthink version of the sunk-cost fallacy, in which we continue to play simply because we have played for so long.

I like to think, however, it’s because League of Legends continues to evolve, not only from year to year or patch to patch, but game to game. This might be barely recognisable when compared to its earliest iterations, but each individual match also offers a new opportunity to learn, to adapt to your enemies as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your own team. Even when you’re cycling through the same few champions over and over again (I plead guilty), a delicate blend of individual skill and tactical understanding keeps the experience fresh.

League of Legends is neither as complex as Dota 2 nor as streamlined as Heroes of the Storm, but maintaining a number of ways in which players can express their own experience is a big part of why it continues to appeal, especially as a member of a group that wants a variety of different things from its games. I’ll never be a mechanical wizard, but I like to think I have a decent tactical outlook while managing to hold my own with the group of champions that I find just ‘click’ with me. Riot’s breadth of champion design means that there’s room for all playstyles to flourish - good news for those of my friends for whom absolutely dunking on their opponents is their League of Legends bread and butter.

On a personal level LoL is a no-brainer as one of the games of the decade, but the game's evolution has a wider relevance within the industry that often feels overlooked. For better and worse, Riot has managed to remain at the forefront of many of the biggest conversations in gaming over the past ten years. Years before Fortnite came along, it had established a regular update pattern that kept the game fresh while doing its best to maintain a semblance of balance. League of Legends was not the first esport, but from humble beginnings it’s become one of the biggest competitive games in the world, breaking streaming records during its recent world championships and being named the US’ third most-watched sport among its target demographic earlier this month. Riot has been central to discussions about the growing importance of China to gaming companies around the world, as well as those about working conditions and gender equality. As the decade draws to a close, it’s among those studios asking questions of big players like Valve and Blizzard, as it prepares to roll out its IP into half-a-dozen major genres over the next few years.

League of Legends has had its ups and downs but, as the decade draws to a close, the game is healthier than it's ever been. Not only are individual matches more diverse and competitive than they were, but the future is already expanding far further than many fans ever thought it could, with the success of Teamfight Tactics and the imminent arrival of Legends of Runeterra. Whether I’ll still be playing League of Legends in 2029 remains to be seen, but we’ll still be feeling the effects of Riot’s MOBA well into the future.